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8 Myths About OCD

Things people commonly misunderstand about obsessive compulsive disorder

Emily Morter/Unsplash
Source: Emily Morter/Unsplash

1. Loving your things neat and tidy makes you "so OCD!"

If you're saying "I'm so OCD" with more enthusiasm than a One Direction fan on Twitter, you probably don’t have it. The person who cleans their house because having a tidy home brings them joy does not have OCD. It’s only OCD if it causes you distress. If someone spends hours cleaning their house every day because they fear something terrible will happen if they don’t, then that would be OCD.

A person with OCD might actually make a useless cleaner. My desk, for instance, is a haven for dirty mugs. The media commonly portrays OCD as a disorder of cleanliness, when in fact a fear of contamination is just one of many forms the illness takes. While some sufferers may obsessively clean their house, others will have very different symptoms. Obsessive hoarding can also be a form of OCD, so the sufferer in question may well have a much more disorganised and cluttered house than you.

2. It would be really obvious if someone had OCD because they would always be avoiding stepping on pavement cracks and checking that they turned the stove off.

Although some types of OCD are easily visible because of physical symptoms, many are not. OCD tends to be a very secretive disorder. The average time taken to access help varies depending on what source you check, but most put it at over 10 years. Friends and family of the sufferer often admit they had no idea. Do you think they would be able to hide it for so long if it was always immediately obvious?

By way of example, lots of people with OCD carry out purely mental compulsions such as internal counting, praying, and list-making, which are impossible to see as an outsider.

3. OCD isn't particularly serious.

When I was first diagnosed, one of the first things I did was tell a close friend. Her response? "I'm sorry to hear you're sick, but I'm just so glad it's nothing really bad." It wasn't meant to hurt me. She was expressing relief, but her relief was misguided. It's not particularly constructive to start comparing how bad one illness is relative to another, but we should remember that sufferers of OCD may become housebound and cease to be able to live anything resembling a normal life. At my worst, I spent every waking moment embroiled in mental routines. Tragically, some people with OCD will end up attempting or dying from suicide.

4. If you meet someone with OCD, the best thing to do is help then with their routines.

When faced with someone who has OCD, the natural instinct tends to be to want to help. It's incredibly difficult for friends and family to watch as a loved one works themselves into a state because of their compulsions. The temptation is to reassure them they have not done anything wrong, and to offer to be the one who checks that things are switched off.

Although reassurance can be a wonderful thing in day-to-day life, it is not a good way of dealing with a person's compulsions. OCD is a monster that needs to be confronted rather than collaborated with. Offering to help someone by checking something merely endorses the sufferer's notion that it is sensible to follow the demands of their compulsions. Telling your loved one that you can see they’re struggling, but you aren’t going to encourage or foster their compulsions, is a healthier and ultimately kinder response.

5. People with OCD lack willpower.

This mistake is often made by people who know a little bit about OCD, but not the whole shebang. Once someone understands that any form of the disorder ultimately takes the form of someone being unable to stop complying with routines, rituals, and thoughts that govern their life, the next thing that comes out their mouth tends to be, "Well why don't you just stop doing it?"

The answer? We're already using all our willpower trying to fight the disorder! For a sufferer, engaging in routines will probably have been a part of their life for so long that trying to break that pattern is like conquering a fiercely set-in addiction. Chipping away at the illness will take time. Those around them need to appreciate a disorder cannot just be snapped out of. Be patient and considerate.

6. There’s no way to get better from OCD.

Many people labour under the misconception that OCD is a personality trait and that if you have it, there’s nothing to be done. There is treatment for OCD, however: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the first-line recommended treatment. CBT is a therapy where you consider how thinking in other ways, and responding to obsessional thoughts differently, can positively change the way you behave. It has been clinically shown to be effective.

7. We can joke about OCD.

OCD is often the subject of jokes (a la Khloe Kardashian’s online quiz "How Khlo-C-D are you?"). When sufferers complain, they are accused of lacking a sense of humor. I have been dubbed "the most humourless lump of socialist turd on the whole of Twitter."

Before joining in with the hilarity, consider the harm these jokes can cause. I did not get a diagnosis until I was 16, and this was largely because all that I thought I knew about OCD was that it pertained to being a perfectionist. Every time we perpetuate this myth, it stops people like me from knowing what we have and being able to seek help.

I do not suggest that we never laugh at our struggles—being able to find humor in the darkest of places can be a guiding light. It’s the inaccurate jokes that get in the way of people having any real understanding of this disorder that I take issue with.

8. OCD can be useful.

Sufferers themselves often maintain that there is logic and use to their rituals. They will tell you they will never be burgled because their front door is definitely 110% locked. If you have OCD, you may have found yourself on the end of a lot of comments recently about how "useful" it must be to already be so concerned about contamination in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, OCD is never useful. Personal hygiene? Great. Checking the door once? By all means. But when the checks go from healthy to destructive—that's when there's a problem. It's better to get burgled once than jeopardise your life with chronic OCD. Or put it this way: One could spend their whole life trying to avoid getting sick by sticking to strict contamination rituals without acknowledging an uncomfortable truth—they've been ill all along.

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